Community development has evolved. In the past, the approach was based on a project by project strategy. It often launched with the initial recognition of a problem, a white elephant of a building on Main and Main or, more often, a declining job market, population loss and less municipal income. Civic leaders would determine that the solution was to attract more business. An economic development team would then be directed to apply for grants, seek investors and subsidize a business or two.
But over the years, community development practitioners found that these businesses often did not succeed. An enterprise gets started but fails to live up to expectations. A grant provides startup funding for a project but the project begins to fail when the funding ceases to flow. Investors show up but get entangled in community politics and become disillusioned.
A more holistic approach to economic development is needed. It begins with the same perception of a problem and the recognition that lack of jobs and income is a big part of the problem. Rather than addressing a single business, this approach puts in place an environment in which people want to invest. They want to invest because they believe their investment has a good chance of paying off. It may produce a profit, create satisfaction and raise the quality of life. Most investors have choices and if they do not see a decent possibility of a payoff, they will go elsewhere.
This approach does not say let’s start a business but instead let’s build an environment that encourages investors to invest, that helps businesses last and that allows investments to flourish and profit.
The earlier approach failed to consider the interconnected challenges faced by residents of low income, distressed communities. Rather in this second approach there is deep and sustained citizen engagement to address a spectrum of inter-connected needs. Resident and leaders envision a better future, create a definitive plan to accomplish that vision and recruit organizations, institutions and local agencies into collaborative partnerships that align resources and integrate programs and services it improve the quality of life within the community.
The River Towns program embraces this holistic approach to community development and draws on an asset – based community development strategy.
The National Main Street Program is an example of successful asset-based economic development. The Main Street program created by the National Trust for Historic Preservation is preservation-based economic development that enables communities to revitalize downtown and neighborhood business districts by leveraging local assets - from historic, cultural, and architectural resources to local enterprises and community pride. It is a comprehensive strategy that addresses the variety of issues and problems that challenge traditional commercial districts
Asset-based community development(ABCD) is a strategy that seeks to uncover and utilize the strengths within communities as a means for sustainable development. The basic premise is that focusing on a community’s assets is more likely to empower and engage its citizens to create positive and meaningful change. In the case of River Towns, a major focus is on the asset of navigable rivers or waterways that offer opportunities for fishing, boating, swimming or scenic enjoyment. In the original Trail Town Program, the central asset is the 138-mile Great Allegheny Passage rail trail and in the Canal Towns, the 184-mile C & O Canal Towpath and the National Historical Park represent significant assets and visitor attractions bringing close to 4 million visitors to that region annually.
In developing a community development strategy on outdoor recreational assets, the Trail, River and Canal Town programs recognize that the market is significant and growing. With the baby boomer generation leading longer and healthier lives, the number of active adults partaking in regular outdoor recreation, is growing each year. It is also well known that quality of life is perceived by residents as much higher when there is access to outdoor activities as presented by trails and waterways.
Outdoor recreation is on the rise as study after study demonstrates. In Berks, Montgomery, Chester and Lehigh counties nearly $877 million is annual spent on hunting, fishing and wildlife watching each year. The Great Allegheny Passage Trail Towns reported a $40 million economic impact from trail related businesses in the 2008 season despite a national economic downturn.
A recent report from the George Washington University, the Adventure Travel Trade Association and Xola Consulting (2009) analyzes the adventure travel market, which includes outdoor recreation, educational tourism and eco-tourism. The report found that adventure travel has grown despite current economic hardships, and it is becoming increasingly more mainstream. Perhaps surprisingly, many adventure travelers do not have a current passport, which suggests that they exclusively visit domestic or regional adventure travel destinations. These tourists also conduct pre-trip research online (35%) and consult friends and family, which could also be through social media channels.
The percentage of households that are interested in the environment and wildlife and have engaged in camping/hiking has grown at an average annual rate of 1.6 percent from 1993-2008. Additionally, in 1995 40.2 percent of households interested in the environment and wildlife went hiking and/or camping, and by 2008 50.8 percent engaged in hiking/camping.
Public interest in existing and potential water trails along rivers and streams is growing, and these resources are being recognized for their contributions to local economies. Based on the 2006 Virginia Outdoor Survey, the two highest needs for outdoor recreation were access to recreational waters of the state and trails close to home. Key recommendations in the 2007 Virginia Outdoor Plan proposed initiating a statewide trails and greenways planning process that incorporates various stakeholders and the public input process to better meet the growing demand.
An overwhelming 91.9% of Virginians indicated that having access to outdoor recreational opportunities was either important or very important. Participation is most often on weekends; however, with flexibility in work schedules and the numbers of retired or semi-retired persons increasing, 28 percent of Virginians participate in outdoor recreation equally on weekends and during the week. With demographics in Virginia shifting to an aging population, the number of persons who enjoy outdoor recreation both during the week and on weekends is likely to increase into the foreseeable future.
As an economic and community development strategy, an asset-based approach to revitalization is a proven method. With the recent and continued growth of outdoor recreation as a tourism attraction, connecting communities to natural resources to attract tourism can provide economic opportunities, offer direct benefits to environmental conservation and empower local communities to manage their own resources in a sustainable way. In addition to the benefits of tourism to a community, focusing on outdoor recreational assets also offers increased quality of life to residents, and attracts business investment.
Warnick, Rodney B., Stevens Tom, Michael A. Schuett, Walt Kuentzel, and Thomas A. More. "Changes in National Park Visitation (2000-2008) and Interest in Outdoor Activities (1993-2008)." Proceedings of the 2009 Northeastern Recreation Research Symposium. GTR-NRS.P-66 (2009): 204-213. Print.
Virginia Department of Recreation and Conservation. "Outdoor Recreation Issues, Trends and Survey Findings." Virginia Outdoors Plan. (2007): 14-23. Print.